KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The luxury hotel was considered one of the safest spots in the Afghan capital Kabul. Yet, four gunmen walked in, made their way to the restaurant, pulled out hidden pistols and started shooting diners, officials said Friday. They killed nine people, including shooting an AFP journalist, his wife and two children in the head.
The shooting spree Thursday evening at the Serena Hotel was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks by the Taliban and allied militants as they step up a campaign of violence, vowing to disrupt the April 5 national elections.
Claiming responsibility for the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it shows that "our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it."
The attack was particularly bold because the Serena Hotel was seen as one of the best-protected sites for civilians in the capital. Sheltered behind a non-descript wall, entrants must pass through a security room at the gate where they go through a metal detector and bags are put through an X-ray machine. It is popular among foreigners — both visitors and residents, who would often come for brunch or dinner.
The attackers hid their small pistols and ammunition in their shoes and socks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said — but it was not clear how the weapons went undetected.
At the time of the attack, the hotel restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.
Among the victims was Sardar Ahmad, a widely respected 40-year-old Afghan journalist with the French news agency Agence France-Presse. The agency said his wife and two children were also killed and their youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Ahmad also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 to become the agency's senior reporter in Kabul. He covered all aspects of life, war and politics in his native Afghanistan, according to a statement tweeted by the news agency.
Two Canadians were also killed in the attack. It came on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings against foreigners in the Afghan capital, something that had been relatively rare. Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
Six people were wounded in the attack, including Ahmed's son, a foreigner, two policemen, a hotel guard, and an Afghan lawmaker.
The Taliban have threatened to use violence to disrupt next month's elections. The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Sediqqi said the attackers reached the hotel at 8:30 p.m. Two of the gunmen went to the restaurant, killing most of victims, while the other gunmen killed several others while making their way through the hotel, he said.
Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the cordoned off streets outside.
The attackers appeared to be about 18 years old, Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and shoes in which they hid their weapons.
Sediqqi said four foreigners were killed — from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India. But all those countries except Canada denied any of their citizens were among the dead. Canada confirmed that two Canadians were killed.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements since the attack began to unfold on Thursday night. They initially said the attack began at 6 p.m. and left only two guards wounded. They later explained the confusion, saying they were focussing on protecting the hotel guests and the chaos.
In other violence, an explosion struck a Nowruz ceremony on Friday, killing two policemen in the southern province of Kandahar, police said.
Police spokesman Zia Durani said militants threw an explosives-packed bottle that blew up when it landed on the ground, which he called a new tactic.
Durani earlier said three people were killed but later lowered the death toll to two and said the head of the provincial media center was seriously wounded.
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.